Giving Up or Letting Go:  Who's Really Holding On?

published in the Bereaved Families Ontario Newsletter

I am a woman of 78 years, in robust good health, with a full practice of psychotherapy with individuals and groups, and, recently, the author of a new book, Still Life: A Therapist’s Response to the Challenge of Change. Immersed in the landscape of change, I recognized that at my age to a greater extent change comes unbidden. Who of my friends will fail and die next? And, worst of all, what of my husband? We had already lost our eldest son to lung cancer and well know the anguish or reconstructing our family in a new way. How would I manage with the losses that would relentlessly take their toll on much that I hold dear? Three incidents have come together in my mind to challenge me as one who has travelled the path of the dying with those I have loved. These remembered experiences have brought home the distinction between surrender, letting go and giving up on life.

From years as a therapist I well understand the painful desperation of finding the experience of living unbearable, leading to a deadening inertia. Hopelessness can be a defence against an inner longing for connection to life that seems lost. This is giving up on life and the stuff of therapy and other writings. My reflections in this article refer to the end of life challenges, which these three incidents helped me to understand in a new way.

The winnowing.

Recently at one of BON’s Local Heroes workshops, Martin Frith took the group through an exercise that was very powerful and illuminating. We were asked to rip a paper into twelve slips and on each to list something that we valued as central to our life – people, activities, things, etc. We placed them on the table in front of us. We then turned inwards while he gently took us on a voyage of the end of life. We imagined ourselves with the diagnosis of terminal illness, at first feeling reasonably able to live our life. Then we became more tired. We took a visit to relatives in a distant meeting and realized that it took a great deal out of us. The tale took us onward through increasing physical depletion. Each weakening of the body led us to rip up one or two of our slips of paper. At one point I faced a choice between having friends visit or TV. I loved my friends but that was spasmodic, whereas TV kept me company all the time. I found that I could give up either one. Both required me to really encounter others for which I had neither interest nor energy. My world was in my bed and in my own inner quiet. Bit by bit our world was reduced, down to the last remaining choice. What was freeing was that I was making the choice in keeping with my own life rhythms. What was stunning to experience was the relief that accompanied each thing surrendered. Where was the grief in the accumulated losses? Where was my sense of being diminished? Where was the looking back in longing or forward in dread? I found myself given permission to let things and people and expectations go in my own time. We “awoke” from the journey enlightened and oddly relieved of the worry we must have been carrying for others and for ourselves.

From mover and shaker to wise observer

I was driving a familiar route along Eglinton Ave. to visit my friend Gloria who is living with Parkinson’s disease in a senior’s facility. I have dedicated my new book to Gloria as she has taught me about surrender as her physical faculties diminish relentlessly and a refined spirit glows and loves me. The newscaster discussed the debate over the Eglinton public transit decisions. Above ground or subway. All the personalities that were at odds in their political persuasions. I said to myself “That’s one thing I don’t have to get involved in, have strong opinions about, worry about or wait for. By the time the thing is built, Gloria won’t be there and I won’t be going there, if anywhere.” I experienced a strange lightness. I recognized how much energy it takes to engage in the world’s affairs. I felt grateful to those who would do the challenging and planning but felt no loss in releasing myself from the role. It made space for the book that was taking shape at the time, in which perhaps I could support those agents of change in the world from the point of view of a somewhat wise old therapist/woman.

You can’t make me!!

My mother spent her last years leading to her death at 92 in a lovely small nursing home with about seven residents each in a private room. The women chose not to go to a dining room, but rather to be served their meals on lovely china in their own rooms. On one of my visits I crossed paths with the director’s daughter who visited and enriched the lives of the residents. She was on her way out the door. She told me that the Garden Club had made a magnificent pathway of flowers up the centre aisle of St. James Cathedral, each tray different and imaginative and brilliantly arranged. She planned take the women, as it was on one level easily accessed. She reported that none of the women wanted to go. She encouraged them but they were adamant. My mother said that if she were made to go she would not eat her lunch! The caregiver said “To heck with it! I want to see it. I’m going myself!”

I have lived a long life in a personal world that has been expanding and growing, full of rewarding work and relationships. I have four children and a 57 year marriage. A practice and now going on UTube to promote my book. At the same time, partly through the wrestling with the material in the book, I have realized that my changes at this next phase of my life are internal, more of the spirit. I am using my energy to support my wise observer rather than to engage in public agency. I am less into the helping roles in the old doing way and more into the mirroring and nurturing ones.

These incidents, among others, have challenged me to recognize when it might be my need to see my mother up and going to the flower exhibit. On the path to leaving this world she did not owe it to me to keep reaching out to engage it to ease my fear of loneliness, which was mine to face.

Life grew lighter, more unencumbered on her shoulders as she heard less, knew less, remembered less. At the end I would go and lie on her loveseat with my head on her lap and she would stroke my hair. We were back to our first contact, without words. By giving up having to remember and ask me about my life events, she met me spirit to spirit. On my last evening visit to our son David in the hospital, I stroked his brow with a cool cloth. He seemed to sleep and I stopped and sat knitting in a pool of light as he was in the semi-darkness. He said “Are you stopping?” I immediately resumed my lovely contact with his body. There were no words. Our world was totally distilled in this connection of body and spirit as he completed his journey of letting go.

I have learned not to assume that the person I am witnessing is distressed at what is lost. I will try to see what is filling the space which is not empty but which nourishes a life of the spirit that grows to meet whatever lies ahead.


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